(CNSNews.com) – NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels Thursday to discuss proposals for a “no-fly zone” over Libyan territory, amid continuing debate in the U.S. and elsewhere on whether U.N. Security Council approval is needed for such a step.
The Obama administration has deferred to the U.N. on the issue, although there were mixed signals Wednesday on how rigidly it will stick to that stance.
Proponents say enforcing a no-fly zone could help prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from carrying out air strikes on rebel-held areas and Libyan civilians; others have raised questions about the usefulness, scope and risks of the option – particularly as air defenses that may have to be targeted could likely be intentionally located near civilian areas.
Security Council endorsement for a no-fly zone faces an uphill battle, given opposition from Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members. Non-permanent member India has also raised objections.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS News Wednesday that it was “very important that there be a U.N. decision on whatever might be done,” adding that it should “not be an American, or a NATO, or a European effort” but an international one.
However White House press secretary Jay Carney said later in the day that the U.S. and NATO reserved the right “to act on our own.” When State Department spokesman Mark Toner was asked whether U.N. backing was “an absolute requirement” he responded, “It’s always desirable.”
During the Clinton administration, NATO in 1999 carried out air strikes against the Milosovic regime without Security Council endorsement, because of the prospect of Russia and China vetoing any resolution that would have approved the action. The legality of that Balkans intervention has been vigorously debated ever since.
As Gaddafi’s forces continue to battle rebels who control parts of eastern Libya the Obama administration is keen to avoid accusations of unilateral interventionism – despite the fact Islamic and Arab nations are providing cover by themselves calling for action.
Even the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is supporting a no-fly zone proposal and after an emergency meeting on Tuesday called on the Security Council to “assume its responsibility in this regard.”
Ihsanoglu drew a distinction between enforcing a no-fly zone and “outside military intervention in Libya,” saying Islamic nations were opposed to the latter.
The Arab League is meeting on the issue in Cairo on Saturday, and officials have hinted at a strong likelihood that it, too, will endorse a no-fly zone.
In Europe, Britain and France have led calls for a no-fly zone and are working on a draft Security Council resolution. Other countries, notably Italy and Germany, are more cautious, while Turkey – a member of NATO but not the European Union – opposes the idea.
“Reporters have been asking me whether or not NATO should intervene in Libya. It is such nonsense,” Turkey’s Hurriyet quoted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying during a speech in Germany last week.
“What does NATO have to do with Libya?” he asked. “NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing.”
NATO’s 28 members take decisions by consensus and it remains to see the signals coming from the Arab and Islamic blocs will prompt Turkey to soften its position.
Guarded but not categorically opposed, Germany’s foreign ministry characterized the no-fly zone proposal as one option among several, stressing that Germany would only approve the step with U.N. endorsement as well as Arab support.
Italy is also leery, and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has been engaged in intensive discussions with other European Union governments. The European country that has developed the strongest links with Libya, Italy signed a cooperation agreement with its former colony in 2009, and has led European arms sales to the Gaddafi regime.
Alongside Thursday’s NATO defense ministers’ meeting E.U. foreign ministers will also meet, and then on Friday E.U. leaders will hold a summit, also in Brussels, where the Libya crisis will be on the agenda.
Ironically, the city where Libya’s future will be discussed was also the setting for Gaddafi’s first opening-up visit to Europe after a decade-and-a-half of isolation. That April 2004 visit included a meeting with then E.U. Commission President Romano Prodi, who prodded Europe into developing trade ties with Libya.
In an apparent bid to lobby support – and possibly exploit divisions in Western ranks – the Libyan leader dispatched an envoy Wednesday to Lisbon, where according to the Portuguese government he held talks with Foreign Minister Luis Amado.
Like Italy, Portugal has established strong ties with Libya, and Gaddafi visited Lisbon in 2007. Portugal’s LUSA news agency did say that Amado had cleared the meeting with the Libyan envoy with the E.U. foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
Another Gaddafi emissary flew to Cairo, where he was reportedly holding talks with the Arab League head, Amr Moussa.
Gaddafi earlier vowed a violent response if a no-fly zone was imposed, telling Turkish television that “the Libyan people will take up arms” against what he called the “colonialists.”
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a press conference on Monday that the alliance has no plans to intervene militarily, but added that “it is our job to conduct prudent planning for any eventuality.”
“We strongly condemn the use of force against the Libyan people,” he said. “The violation of human rights and international humanitarian law is outrageous.”